Monday, December 01, 2008


Yoko Ono's current exhibition "Fly" at Ke Contemporary Arts Center was hailed as Ono's grand retrospective exhibit, spanning the diverse and prolific career of one of conceptual art's best-known artists. It also promised to be one of the biggest art events in Shanghai of the year. It was not just an artist that was coming to Shanghai, it was the celebrity herself. In fact, the promotional material for the opening specifically stated that Ono would be in attendance. These expectations were confirmed upon my arrival to the opening, in which I was greeted with a determined crowd, all trying to catch a glimpse of Ono from afar as she performed on the roof. The concept to begin the exhibition outside and then for the crowd to transition inside the gallery space seemed like an innovative approach to navigating the visitor's experience, yet it turned out to be a disaster. The crowd became a mob, and the mob pushed and shoved to get inside the door. At times it was uncontrollable even for security. Yoko Ono gave a performance inside of the gallery space for the first small group of visitors. I happened to be in the second shift of visitors, so I watched from afar as she left the gallery with bodyguards and cameramen in toe. By the time I was let in the gallery, I was immediately disappointed. The selection of work, which was curated by Ono herself, was not a retrospective in any sense, and left the visitor with an ambiguous understanding of her oeuvre. This, in fact, has been Yoko Ono's historic problem, in which John Lennon once commented that she was the most famous living artist, but no one knew what she did. At the end, the exhibition's relative failure could have lied in the numerous setbacks of government censorship. The exhibition's title derived from the title of a film by Ono, which was censored by the government for issues of nudity/eroticism. This film would have presumably served as a central piece, which the exhibition seemed to be missing. It is peculiar to note that the government would censor "Fly" but allow her "Mommy is Beautiful” series, which used blatant nudity of the female body. The exhibition was also supposed to accompany a citywide billboard campaign, which would have extended the show outside of the white walls and attempted to engage a wider public. The billboard campaign was also rejected by government censorship. Further, the exhibition was supposed to include her instructional series posted throughout the city. I tried to put these posters up on campus and they were taken down within hours. In one sense, the Yoko Ono opening was a success because it brought together a huge audience, which was bigger than any other one event I have seen in Shanghai thus far. However, the chaos of the crowds and the level of exclusivity in admittance could be said to go directly against Ono's message of peace and love. Overall, with the level of censorship and the inability to carry out the intended program, possibly China is still not ready for Yoko Ono.

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